CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

The Day Louis Armstrong Lost His Color: A Short Story

Reanimation and the blues, magical-realist style

Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong (photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress)

“Fuck me if I’m going out there like this, A,” he said. When Louis was scared, his language got awfully blue. “Get me a partition. A stagehand can walk me out with a partition, then set it down, and I’ll play behind that. Yes. That’s a novel idea. These are progressive times in art. Didn’t someone say I was the jazz answer to Picasso? Or one of those crazy dudes?”

Alpha nodded that it was one of them. Maybe Gertrude Stein, she thought. She couldn’t remember. She knew when newspaper people were trying to make a buck with a splashy headline. “If that’s what makes you comfortable, babe,” she said. Her voice didn’t fully transmit that she agreed with Louis’ plan, or thought it necessary, but the fact was he had a show to give.

The band was a crack one. Talented professionals. They knew Louis had his moods and this was probably the result of one of them. If he wanted to play behind that partition, he had earned the right, earned it a long time ago. All of them had absorbed every last drop of those Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. That music coated their souls, and it was a forever coat.

Naturally, everyone listening knew it was Louis. No trumpet had ever been played like he played his trumpet. King had been the best, then even he had to say, “Nope, not anymore,” and Bix had looked up at King, so when it came to seeing how high up Louis was, he’d have had to lay flat on his back.

Louis blew some of his solos that way behind his partition, feet sticking out under a white sheet on a cheap rack, something chorus girls normally changed behind backstage so that the male hoofers could not see their tweeters, which was Louis’ slang for, well, you know.

The applause came in surging waves, crescendo followed by crescendo. It was so loud, so bracing, so powerful, that Louis thought, “Man, Josh Gibson must be out there, I bet he can clap louder than a motha—”

They finished the final number, and the band did their bows, exited from the stage. The last little clap—the hands might have belonged to a child—faded away, made Louis think of how a hi-hat is like a clapping hand, a sound of joy.

But still he stood behind his partition. No one was leaving. They would not let him walk away without having seen him at least once. He turned to his right, where Alpha was standing in the wings, making a pushing motion with her hand, nudging him. She mouthed that it would be okay, and Louis began an encore. He never did encores. You paid your money, you got your show. That was his ethos. He learned it from King. You could come back again, and he’d try to give you his art once more. But done was done, and new would be new.

Alone, he began “West End Blues,” his favorite of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. But he didn’t play it like he did years before. He took it even slower, for twenty minutes, then twenty-five. He shined up his tone, spit-polished the golden rhythm in the slow curves of the song’s walking blues. And he played his color right back into his face. Finally, the number came to a close. There had been times in Louis’ life when people were too moved to clap. Maybe four times, three, not many more. This was one of them. No tension was better. It was the tension of love, and grace.

Still, it was useful to break it, so that life could go on again—not that he had stopped anyone’s life, but he had added on—and people could take what they’d heard back out into their worlds, as a part of who they now were, who they hadn’t quite been a couple hours before.

He leapt from behind the partition, his horn at his chest, to the apron of the stage, like he was jazz Superman, only he didn’t need no big S on his shirt, just this banged-up piece of brass.

In his most gravelly of gravel voices, he exclaimed, “Look! I’m Colin Clive!”

The Bride of Frankenstein was all the rage in New York City just then. The audience loved the joke, and the spotlight even shifted from Louis, to Colin Clive himself, who was in the crowd, whistling with his fingers.

Maybe there were some days Colin Clive awoke and he was Louis Armstrong.

“You’ll have to puzzle that one out,” Alpha said backstage, packing Louis’ horn into its case, after he had shared his theory.

“I got them ‘Tweeter Blues,’ baby,” he added.

“I bet you do,” she laughed, kissing his beautiful mouth.

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature—for a wide range of publications. He also talks regularly on the radio for the likes of NPR and Downtown with Rich Kimball. His most recent book, Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls (Tailwinds), was published in 2019, with an entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club to follow in 2020. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com (where you’ll also find his unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.